How the Vikings ruled the waves

Gareth Williams unlocks the secrets of the Norsemen’s superlative seamanship.

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

One of the most enduring images of the Viking Age in the popular imagination is the longship, with its dragonhead, row of shields, and large square sail. Unlike the equally popular horned helmet (a Romantic fabrication of the 19th century), the longship is a fitting symbol for the Norsemen. The 250 years between AD 800 and 1050 saw a remarkable expansion from the Scandinavian homelands of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, involving a combination of raiding, conquest, peaceful settlement and long-distance trade.

That same period saw the Vikings develop a remarkable network of international contacts that spread from eastern Canada in the west to central Asia in the east, and north Africa in the south. Many of these contacts were peaceful, and in recent years the Vikings have become known for more than just their established reputation as violent, devious raiders.

Having said that, this reputation was far from unfounded, and would have been all-too familiar to contemporaries around the Viking world. The Persian geographer Ibn Rusta’s assessment of the Vikings in Russia is damning: “Treachery is endemic, and a poor man can be envied by a comrade, who will not hesitate to kill him and rob him.” Meanwhile, you can almost feel an anonymous ninth-century Irish monk’s relief as he notes:
“The wind is sharp tonight,
It tosses the white hair of the sea,
I do not fear the crossing of the Clear Sea     
[Irish Sea],
by the wild warriors of Lothlind [Vikings].”

This quotation reminds us of how far the Viking expansion relied on their ships: remarkable vessels that could carry settlers across the Atlantic, trade goods along the river systems of Russia, and be used with devastating effect in raids around Europe.

A memorial stone from Gotland, Sweden, depicts a Viking ship. Artwork celebrating Viking seamanship has been found everywhere from Dublin to Istanbul. © AKG Images

Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard tells us that the mighty Frankish emperor ordered fortifications to be built in every port and at the mouth of every navigable river to prevent Viking raids. If he did this, it was ineffective, and the ninth century saw repeated coastal raids, such as on Dorestad (in the modern-day Netherlands), and up the great rivers such as the Rhine, Loire and the Seine, with Vikings even attacking Paris.

Across the Channel, Vikings were able to sail their ships as far inland as Repton in Derbyshire, about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in Britain. They could do this because their ships were light and fast, with a shallow draft (the distance between the waterline and bottom of the hull). This could have unexpected benefits, as King Alfred the Great discovered to his cost in 896 when Viking and English fleets clashed in the mouth of an estuary in Dorset. During the battle, the ships of both sides ran aground or were beached, but when the tide returned, the less heavy Viking fleet was able to float off and escape Alfred’s clutches.

 

Vulnerable targets

It wasn’t just the nature of the Vikings’ ships that set them apart though. It was also their ability to use their ships strategically – both along coasts and on rivers – that made them so effective as raiders. It was this, rather than any superior skills in battle (which they often avoided, preferring to hit softer, more vulnerable targets) that made them such a potent force in the early medieval world.

Not only could Vikings arrive and disappear suddenly, but the carrying capacity of their ships meant that they could be used as mobile supply dumps for provisions or loot, without the need for slow-moving and vulnerable supply trains on land. This enabled Viking forces to remain on campaign in hostile territory for years at a time. The ‘Great Raiding Army’ employed this advantage to devastating effect between 865 and 874, when it conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia, and came close to subjugating the last surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex, in 877–78.

The Vikings’ skilled use of ships allowed them to be year-round campaigners, unlike some of their contemporaries, even attacking in the bleakest conditions. The notorious attack on Lindisfarne in 793 – in which Viking raiders apparently burned buildings, stole treasures and murdered monks – was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having taken place in January. Later editors found it so hard to believe that they could have launched this attack in the middle of winter and so changed the date to June, assuming that that was what the original had meant. In fact it had been January, a time when their assault would provide the maximum surprise.

All the same, Viking ships were vulnerable to bad weather. In 876 a Viking ‘ship army’ from East Anglia on their way to rendezvous with a ‘land army’ near Exeter “met with a great storm at sea, and all their ships were lost”. Even the discovery of America in the late 10th century, often lauded as one of the Vikings’ greatest navigational achievements, occurred when the Icelander Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course during a storm on his way to Greenland. According to later saga tradition, he did not land, but managed to work his way back to Greenland, where he sold his ship and never went to sea again.

If the Vikings could not control the weather – and Thor, whose hammer created thunder and lightning, seems to have been one of the most widely worshipped gods – they nevertheless had skills in shipbuilding and seamanship that went beyond those of most of their contemporaries. This is not surprising when you consider the landscape of the Viking homelands. With the exception of the Jutland peninsula, Denmark is an archipelago, and Norway is one long coastline, divided inland by the mountains.

While Sweden has more in the way of passable land, the 11th-century chronicler Adam of Bremen notes that it was possible to travel by ship from southern Sweden to Sigtuna on Lake Mälaren in eastern Sweden in five days, while the same journey overland would take a month. The Franks and Anglo-Saxons may have relied predominately on land travel, but it was the rivers and seas that kept the Vikings connected with each other and offered the best opportunities for wealth and expansion.

As a result, ships played a vital role in Scandinavian society in the Viking Age. Graffiti of Viking ships have been found everywhere from Dublin to Istanbul, and ship designs adorn coins, jewellery and monumental carvings. Even children too young to go on long voyages would be familiar with ships and boats for short journeys, and toy or model ships have been found at Viking sites in Scandinavia and overseas.

The Vikings also celebrated great sailors such as Bjorn Ironside and his brother Hastein, who supposedly led a remarkable raid down the Mediterranean in the mid-ninth century.

However, not all ships in the Viking Age matched the stereotypical image of the ‘longship’. As time went on, the Vikings became increasingly specialised as shipbuilders, creating vessels that were well adapted for particular circumstances. Archaeologists have discovered a wide variety of ship forms, including purpose-built warships (long and narrow) and cargo-ships (deep and broad), as well as others that could have combined the two functions.

This last group includes what probably remain the most famous – and certainly the most intact – ships excavated so far: the Oseberg ship (buried 832) and the Gokstad ship (buried c910), both of which hail from southern Norway. Both could carry a large number of men, but also boasted substantial storage space, which could be used for cargo, stores or loot.

These early ninth-century coins depicting Viking longships were probably minted in Hedeby, Denmark. © Bridgeman Art Library

So were the Vikings raiders or traders? The discovery of the Oseberg and Gokstad ships suggests that they were both. However, although it’s possible to distinguish – from the 10th century onwards, at least – between ships built for war and those built for commerce, raiding and trading were by no means mutually exclusive. This is nowhere more apparent than in the slave trade. Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Frankish sources reveal extensive raiding not just for loot, but for prisoners, who could then be either ransomed or sold as slaves. In 821, Vikings seized “a great number of women” from the Howth peninsula, north of Dublin, and took them into captivity. Fifty years later, in 871, Viking raiders from Dublin returned from the British kingdom of Strathclyde with “a great prey of Angles, Britons and Picts”.

The same Vikings might well be pirates or peaceful traders as circumstances demanded. The legitimacy of Viking activity (or the lack of it) probably depended in part on perspective, not least because the Vikings’ activities took them not just across the borders of different kingdoms but across the boundaries of different legal practices and social customs.

There are similarities here with Elizabethan sea captains such as Ralegh and Drake – romantic heroes to the English, heretic pirates to the Spanish. There are also echoes of the Vikings’ exploits in the China traders of the 19th century, another group of adventurers who trod the line between legal and illegal activity, and whose remarkable seamanship enabled them to develop trading links across the globe.

 

Status symbols

If you’re looking for evidence of the sheer geographical scale of the Vikings’ maritime influence, then the discovery of vast numbers of Islamic coins in their hoards – along with whalebone from the North Atlantic and fragments of silk, both found in Viking towns such as Dublin and York – is surely it.

Viking ships were not, however, simply functional means of navigating the world’s oceans. Among a people who prized the virtues of seamanship so highly – and who loved to flaunt their riches – they were also a major symbol of wealth and status.

Even relatively small boats required a significant investment in labour. But the resources needed for building large ships were massive, including not just a combination of unskilled labour and large quantities of timber, but iron for rivets, wool or linen for sails, horse-hair, hide and flax or lime-bast for cordage. Ships were also routinely decorated with elaborate carvings or ornamented with precious metal, as this passage from the Encomium Emmae Reginae (1041–42) reveals: “Such, also, was the decoration of the ships, that… to those who were looking from afar they seemed [to be made] more of flame than of wood… Here shone the gleam of weapons, but there the flame of hanging shields. Gold burned on the prows, silver also shone on ships of various shapes.”

Individual vessels became famous in their own right, as well as providing a reflection of their owner’s spending power and status. For example, the Long Serpent, boasting 34 rowing benches, was built for King Olaf Tryggvasson of Norway just before AD 1000, and was long remembered as the largest ship ever built. The Icelandic saga compiler Snorri Sturluson, writing around 230 years later, noted that the stocks on which the ship had been built were still visible in his own time.

During the building of this ship, the prow-wright Thorberg Shave-stroke had been so disappointed with the design that one night he vandalised it, hacking wedges out of the planks. When King Olaf discovered the damage he threatened to kill the perpetrator. Shave-stroke owned up to the king, explaining that he felt the planking had been executed poorly and requesting the chance to fix it, on pain of death if his work did not please Olaf. In the end the king was so impressed with Shave-stroke’s changes that he was put in charge of completing the Long Serpent and went on to become a ‘celebrity’ shipbuilder.

Even more impressive than the Long Serpent was the longship known as Roskilde 6. At over 37 metres, this is the longest Viking ship yet discovered. It was excavated in 1996–97 (along with eight later ships) during the construction, as chance would have it, of an extension of the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde.

Anything over 30 pairs of oars was considered large in the Viking Age. With 39 or 40, Roskilde 6 was exceptional, and there is also evidence that the ship was decorated with ornamental carving.

Both the size and the ornamentation suggest a very high-status vessel, and possibly one built for a king, or at least for the royal fleet. Intriguingly, analysis of the timbers shows that the ship was constructed in southern Norway around AD 1025. Cnut the Great conquered England in 1016, and ruled both England and Denmark until his death in 1035. In 1028 he also conquered Norway, driving his rival Olaf Haraldsson (later St Olaf) into exile, and creating a North Sea empire unparalleled before or since. Roskilde 6 may have been built by Olaf in an attempt to resist Cnut’s expansion, but it could also have been made for Cnut to celebrate his conquest of the timber resources around the Oslo Fjord.

For the British Museum exhibition we have reassembled the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6, which is appearing in Britain for the first time. It is a magnificent sight and there can be little better confirmation of the Vikings’ skills in shipbuilding and the importance of the sea to their colourful history.

 

Going down with the ship: the importance of boats to Viking burials

If ships were important in life for the Vikings, they also had a symbolic importance in death. Ships were used in a variety of funerary practices, although there is some debate among scholars as to whether they simply reflected the wealth of the deceased – ship burials typically feature other expensive grave goods – or whether they represented the voyage to the afterlife.

Stones depict the outline of a ship in this Viking burial near Aalborg in Jutland. © Rex Features

The latter can perhaps be seen in the stones from Gotland in the Baltic. Designs vary but a widespread combination of motifs on the stones shows a ship below a mounted figure arriving at a hall, sometimes being greeted by a woman bearing a horn of mead or ale. This is usually interpreted as a representation of the voyage to the afterlife, and the arrival of the deceased at Valhöll, the ‘Hall of the Slain’.

There were three separate funerary practices in which ships were directly associated with burial. The first is ship burial itself. Some of these were richly furnished, but others were on a less lavish scale, with smaller boat burials recorded around the Viking world, including examples from Scotland and the Isle of Man. These were the graves of chieftains rather than kings or queens, but still represent significant wealth.

Burial in actual ships was not always practicable. An alternative burial practice was to symbolise the ship by erecting stones in the shape of a ship around the grave, sometimes with larger stones representing the stem and stern.

A longship in flames at an Up Helly Aa festival – marking the end of the Yule season – in Shetland. For many, the image of a burning ship is synonymous with the Vikings. © Alamy

A final burial rite involving ships is understandably more difficult to substantiate archaeologically, but has captured the popular imagination more than any other. The idea of burning a ship with its owner in it is recorded in a late and mythological account of the funeral of the god Baldr, who was cremated in his ship Hringhorni along with his heartbroken wife, Nanna, and a dwarf who was accidentally kicked into the flames.

This story has some parallels with an account by the 10th-century Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlãn, who describes the funeral of a Viking chieftain on the Volga c922. In this account the chieftain was cremated in his ship along with a slave girl, who was sacrificed so that she could accompany her master. This is consistent with the presence in the boat burial of a wealthy man at Balladoole, Isle of Man, of a female skeleton showing signs of a violent death.

 

Raised from the dead: evidence of the Vikings’ mastery of the seas

1) The longest longship

A section of the bottom of Roskilde 6 is shown below, during its excavation in Zealand, Denmark in 1997. This is the longest Viking ship yet discovered and boasted 39 or 40 pairs of oars, when anything over 30 was considered large.

Roskilde 6. © National Museum of Denmark

 

2) Fit for a queen?

The Oseberg ship (below), is widely regarded as one of the finest finds from the Viking Age. The ship was buried in the 830s, and discovered in 1904. The burial contained two women, with a variety of expensive grave goods, suggesting that at least one of the women was of royal status.

 

3) In prime condition

The Gokstad ship (pictured below). Along with the Oseberg ship, this is one of the two best-preserved, and most celebrated, Viking boats in existence. It was built in the mid-890s and buried in c910 in southern Norway.

 

4) The face of power

Viking ships were often adorned with elaborate carvings, designed to draw attention to the owner’s wealth and status. Contemporary accounts suggest that the finest warships had dragon-head prows. None have survived intact, but they probably resembled the carved post from the Oseberg burial, pictured below.

Carved dragon head from the Oseberg burial. © Bridgeman Art Library

Gareth Williams was the curator of the 2014 Exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here